Perched precariously on the playoff bubble, the Oklahoma City Barons came up with a crucial comeback.
Out-shot and out-played by the Abbotsford Heat for much of Sunday afternoon’s contest, the Barons battled back from deficits on three occasions en route to a 5-4 shootout victory.
Austin Fyten scored twice, Curtis Hamilton notched the equalizer with 2:07 remaining in regulation, and Anton Lander potted the winner in the shootout as the Edmonton Oilers affiliate prevailed in the Heat’s final home game of the regular season.
“It was tough – we were behind the eight ball all night,” said Fyten, who posted the first multi-goal game of his AHL career. “We wanted it and just kept pushing and pushing. We deserved that one.”
With the win, the eighth-place Barons (34-28-11, 79 points) earned a two-point cushion with three regular season games remaining in the race for the final Western Conference playoff berth. They’ve got the Charlotte Checkers and Rockford IceHogs (both at 77 points) nipping at their heels, along with the Utica Comets (75 points plus one game in hand).
The fifth-place Heat (40-25-8, 88 points), who secured their playoff berth earlier in the week, had plenty to be pleased about in terms of their performance.
After being out-shot decisively in their first three games of the homestand – by a cumulative 111-57 margin – they dominated in the shots-on-goal department on Sunday with a 37-27 edge.
They also savoured milestones from defenceman Brett Kulak and goalie Doug Carr.
Kulak, who recently inked an entry-level contract with the NHL parent Calgary Flames and joined the Heat after his junior season with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants wrapped up, notched his first professional goal in the second period.
And Carr, who signed with the Heat last week at the conclusion of his four-year career with the NCAA’s UMass Lowell River Hawks, got his first pro start in net and had some fantastic moments – though he might want another crack at Hamilton’s tying goal.
“In the end of it, I don’t think it was their desperation that really took over the game,” Heat forward Brett Olson analyzed. “It’s just some things that we kind of allowed to play into, and we let that one slip away.”
Olson got the Heat on the board during a power play just past the midway point of the first period. He tracked down Derek Smith’s rebound in the slot and lifted a backhander over Barons goalie Richard Bachman for his 17th goal of the season (see photo above).
Fyten drew the Barons even early in the second period when Brad Hunt’s point shot banked in off him, but the Heat pulled away in short order on goals by Kulak and Ben Street.
Ben Hanowski set the table for Kulak’s milestone goal, wheeling into the slot and drawing the defence before slipping a slick backhand feed to a pinching Kulak. With Bachman out of position, all that was left for him to do was slide it into the wide-open net.
“Hanowski, I didn’t know he saw me back there, but he threw a really nice pass – I guess that’s why he’s been in the NHL for the past month,” Kulak said, alluding to the fact that Hanowski was returned to the Heat by the Flames on Saturday.
“He made it really easy for me to just tap it in there. Obviously I can’t enjoy it as much as I would have if we won the game, but it’s still a special feeling.”
A power-play goal by Roman Horak late in the second period and an even-strength marker from Fyten early in the third drew the Barons level at 3-3. But Max Reinhart finished off a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play with Hanowski and Street on the power play to give the Heat the lead once again.
In the dying minutes, Hamilton took a pass from Will Acton on the rush and beat Carr with a wrist shot from the slot to knot the score again.
Overtime settled nothing, though Carr was required to make a tremendous glove save on OKC’s Taylor Fedun from point-blank range.
In the shootout, C.J. Stretch and Lander scored for the Barons, while Blair Jones was the only one of the Heat’s five shooters to solve Bachman.
“I thought it was a good hockey game – at this time of year, no lead is ever safe,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “It’s almost playoff time . . . and they’re scratching for their berth into the playoffs, and we have ours.
“We did some really good things. We played better in a lot of ways.”
Ward praised the play of recent returnee Hanowski, who played on the fourth line with Carter Bancks and Josh Jooris, and lauded the trio with an ice cream metaphor.
“They all have an element of ‘hard’ to them,” Ward said. “That (Bancks) line was going old-time Baskin Robbins – you’ve got to dig it out, it’s really hard to get out of there, and you put it in the cone and it breaks all up.
“The rest of the lines are melting over the top of the cone. That’s what we’ve got to figure out here pretty quick – soft serve isn’t going to win.
“I’m being honest – we’ve got some guys who have got to play harder.”
• The Heat handed out their regular season awards in a pre-game ceremony, and the winners were Joni Ortio (MVP), Chad Billins (top defenceman), Markus Granlund (top rookie), Corban Knight (community man of the year) and Reinhart (fan’s choice).
• The Flames wrap up their season at the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday evening. Three players are set to join the Heat post-game – defencemen Billins and Chris Breen, and centre Granlund.
• The Heat finish the regular season with a three-games-in-three-nights road trip: Thursday and Friday at the San Antonio Rampage, and Saturday at the Texas Stars.
• Ward indicated that a trio of Flames 2013 draft choices – LW Emile Poirier (22nd overall), D Keegan Kanzig (67th overall) and D Eric Roy (135th overall) – could soon join the Heat since their junior seasons are over.
“I haven’t gotten confirmed on (Poirier’s status), but I believe the other two defencemen are due into Abbotsford at some point,” he said.